Archive for April, 2012

The Inbox

Monday, April 30th, 2012

It’s time for another edition of The Inbox, where we answer the hard hitting questions posed to Cubs beat writer, Carrie Muskat, with a little more substance. You can view Carries answers in her column on www.cubs.com

Why isn’t Bryan LaHair starting every day? He has a .300 average, he’s hitting home runs, and this is supposed to be his opportunity to show his abilities. It doesn’t make sense. — Dean S., Goshen, Ind.

Dean, I agree with you. Nothing drives me more than when people shelter hitters. We see a small sample size and automatically assume that he sucks against the lefties and will never improve. So, we beat on his confidence and sit him against those guys. Then, on the off chance they get to face one on the rare occasion, they look worse because they don’t see them on a regular basis. Just give a guy a chance to prove he can’t do it and can’t improve. Then, once we’ve established that, I’m fine with the platoon. It in a lot of ways mirrors what we do with our kids these days. We shelter them to the point that they aren’t allowed to fail. They live in the everyone gets a ribbon for showing up world that doesn’t let them fall and skin their knee. As a result, kids are going up to be self righteous, self serving punks that think the world is their oyster. There is little to no accountability. Let LaHair get in there and take his hacks. Let him play himself out of the spot instead of just taking him out of it.

I was wondering if Bryan LaHair or Anthony Rizzo are serviceable at any position but first base. It seems to me that Rizzo is just wasting his time Triple-A Iowa and needs more big league at-bats. Any way to get both of them in the lineup? — John B., Ketchikan, Alaska

This, to me, is a two part answer, though it wasn’t meant as a two part question. Answering the actual question first, I would say that if anyone were to move to another spot it would be LaHair. He’s considered the expendable one if we had to choose between the two. Rizzo is the golden boy. He’s been the apple of Jed Hoyer’s eye since the minute he laid eyes on him. He’s Jed’s opus. Nothing will be done to retard his development, especially shifting him all over the diamond. That would fall on LaHair. A quick of Baseball Reference, which I’m not sure why people don’t do themselves before asking the question, would show that LaHair has played 14 games in the OF and 55 at 1B in the majors in his career. In the Minor Leagues over the course of his career we see 33 games in the OF and 724 games at 1B. So, there is no question both guys are groomed to play first base, but I think that if pressed, LaHair could fill in at an OF position. I’m not sure you’d want him to, though.

Moving on to the answer that is more an argument about your statement that Rizzo is just “wasting his time in Triple-A”, I don’t believe that’s true. Every at bat you get, regardless of where it is, is an opportunity to get better. Playing time yields improvement if used properly. We rush guys too quickly now in their development because owners tend not to be as patient with the front office regime as they used to be. It’s a win now / what have you done for me lately type of sports climate we live in and so as a result, top prospects are shuffled through the system before they are truly ready. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m perfectly fine with Rizzo tearing it up, even if it’s being done in AAA. It just means he’ll be more ready when he gets here.

Do the Cubs have a good shortstop at Triple-A? They have to move Starlin Castro to center field. He is not a shortstop at all, and enough is enough with the errors. — Rick V., Woodridge, Ill.

I promised Lizzie I would try not to be hateful in my responses, but this question is just moronic. Why would it make logical sense that if a player is struggling at SS he would all of a sudden be able to be shifted to not only a position that is completely different, but also the hardest of the three outfield spots? I honestly wonder if Rick even watches the games. On top of the oddity of the suggestion, it wouldn’t make organizational sense to shift Castro to CF. You just moved Marlon Byrd in an effort to clear the way for youth at the position, which is right around the corner.

Those are the highlights to this edition of The Inbox. You are now free to resume your day.

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The Farm Report: Weekly Prospect Review

Monday, April 30th, 2012

Today we start a new segment on the Farm Report. Every Monday, Joe, Norm or myself will look at one prospect from each level at the Cubs system. Are they meeting expectations? Surpassing them? Failing to meet them? And why?

Triple A- Brett Jackson, OF

Brett Jackson is having a down year, considering the numbers he put up in his first stint at Iowa at the end of 2011. After posting a .297/.388/.551 in forty-eight games in Triple A last season, he is only hitting .241/.333/.434 in twenty games this season. But let’s look a bit deeper into the stats. Jackson is walking slightly less this season, with an 11.5% walk rate compared to 13% in 2012. But he’s also striking out a bit less. After striking out 29.8% of is plate appearances last season, Jackson has cut his strikeout rate to 26% this season. Jackson is hitting for a bit less power as well. His isolated power (ISO) has dropped from .254 to .193, but .193 is still a healthy ISO.

So what’s the real difference? Considering I am the one who is writing this, you may have guessed BABIP. Last season, Jackson’s BABIP was .402. This season, however, it is .316. As a left handed hitter with speed, it would not be a surprise if Jackson regularly posted above average BABIPs. But .402 would be the greatest BABIP of the modern era, and .300 is the approximate league average BABIP. So Jackson may have had some bad luck so far this season, but to expect the numbers he posted at Iowa last year in the Majors is not reasonable.

Generally, Jackson’s issues remain the same as last season. He strikes out too much, but can hit for power, draw walks, steal bases and hit for some power. He could peak as a 20/20 guy who gets on base at a good pace despite posting low batting averages, even if he does not improve the contact rates. If, somehow, he is able to reduce the strikeouts, he could be a star.

Double A- Jae-Hoon Ha, OF

Prior to this season, Ha was known as a good defensive outfielder with good contact skills, but he did not walk and hit for power. Ha has been something of a disappointment this season, hitting for even less power that last year. After posting a .119 ISO in sixty-one games Tennessee last season, Ha is only posting a .071 to this point in his second stint at the level. He is walking a bit more this season (6.5% this season compared to 4.5% last season), but he is also striking out much more. After striking out in only just 11.5% of his plate appearances last season, he is striking out in 20.4% this season.  The strikeout rate increase has led his batting average to drop from .283 last season to .250 this season.

Ha is only 21, so he is young for the level. However, the fact that his offense has gone backwards this season is not a good sign. When he was a good defender with at least elite contact skills, his floor was at least as a quality fourth outfielder. If he is just a good defender who cannot do much anything offensively, though, he might not be much of a prospect at all.

High A- Matt Szczur, OF

Szczur has been in some ways very disappointing… but in some ways really interesting. To start with the disappointing: his strikeout rate at High A has increased from 11% last season to 17% this season. His batting average has dropped as well, going from .260 in Daytona last season to .233 so far, and he has hit for absolutely no power. Of Matt Szczur’s 21 hits this season, only six have been for extra bases: five doubles and a triple.

On the other hand, Szczur has increased his High A walk rate from less than 3% in 2011 to 13% in 2012, and he has stolen eleven bases while being caught three times. With that said, at 22 Szczur is not young for the level. If he is the prospect Baseball America thinks he is, he should be dominating the Florida State League. He still has some time to turn it around, but he needs to do more than just walk and steal bases to look like more than a future Major League reserve outfielder.

Low A- Wes Darvill, IF

Darvill, the Cubs’ fifth round draft pick in 2009, did not make our Top 20 prospects list this season, but would have had a good shot to be on the list if we extended it to 30. Drafted out of high school from Canada (just because he celebrates Thanksgiving in October doesn’t mean he can’t play ball), Darvill has been a level a year guy to this point. He split time between the rookie league Arizona Cubs and the Boise Hawks in 2010, before spending last year with the Hawks. Darvill had put up respectable, but not particularly eye catching numbers over the last two seasons. While Darvill always walked in around 10% and struck out in around 20% of his plate appearances, he did not hit for any power before last season.

The power has jumped significantly every year of his career, though, and this year was no exception. His ISO in Boise in 2010 was just .011,  which means all but one of his hits were singles. And the other one was a double. In 2011 it increased to .063. This year, at age twenty, it has jumped to .114, including Darvill’s first professional home run.

Darvill has played all over the infield, and greatly exceeded expectations this year. It is too early to say if the power surge is real or not, but if he can even keep this power up he will become a truly legit prospect. If he can add more power, that changes the equation completely.

April 29, 2012 Round Up

Triple A– The Iowa Cubs and Nashville Sounds were rained out for the second time this weekend. There is no report yet as to when the games will be rescheduled.

Double A- Tennessee 5, Jackson 3

Tennessee won in ten innings on Sunday on the strength of a Jonathan Mota two run home run. Mota had the best offensive day for the Smokies, adding a double and a single to the aforementioned home run. Catcher Michael Brenly posted two singles and an RBI. Most impressively, the Smokies got to Jackson starting pitcher Danny Hultzen, the second pick in last year’s draft, for three runs in four and two-thirds innings. Smokies starter Dae-Eun Rhee struggled as well, giving up three runs and four and one-third innings. Scott Weisman, Kevin Rhoderick and Marcus Hatley, though, combined for five and two-thirds scoreless innings out of the bullpen.

High A- Daytona 4, Lakeland 6

Somehow I always seem to have minor league round-up duty when Zach Cates pitches. He struggled less than he had to this point, but still did not pitch particularly well. Cates gave up three runs in five innings, but did only allow five hits and one walk. It would be nice to see him have a few truly strong performances in a row, though. Former top pick Hayden Simpson struggled in relief, giving up two earned runs in one a two-thirds innings. Matt Szczur tallied two hits, a single and a double. Designated hitter Nelson Perez added a single, triple and two RBIs.

Low A- Peoria 5, Fort Wayne 2

Benjamin Wells had his best start of the season, throwing five and one-third innings while giving up no runs. He gave up three walks, but also only allowed two hits and struck out three. Kyler Burke had less luck in relief, giving up two runs in three and two-third innings, but was able to maintain the lead. Several Chiefs, including Wes Darvill, had multiple hits. Designated hitter Taylor Davis was the MVP of the game, though, collecting two hits and a walk. The big thing was that one of those hits was a grand slam.

Transactions: Brian Schlitter was promoted from High A to Double A. Schlitter kinda sorta used to be a prospect, but has not been one for several years now. Daniel Berlind was promoted from Double A to Triple A. Both are relief pitchers, and neither are significant prospects at this point.

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Game 22: Garza’s Gem Almost Gets Tossed in the Trash

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

Cubs 5 @ Phillies 1

Box Score / Highlights / Condensed Game

Coming into the game, Matt Garza had put up the best performance as a starting pitcher according to the game score stat with an 85 pitched on April 12th. Today was just as good, with a final game score of 84. He now owns the only two outings with a score over 80 this season for Cubs starters. Only Ryan Dempster (1 time) and Jeff Samardzija (2 times) have tossed an outing over 70. He had everything working today and made quick work of a Phillies lineup that looks drastically different this year without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. I don’t think you can really ask much more from your starters. Give us seven strong innings on a consistent basis and we’ll win a lot of games. It allows the bullpen to be fresh day in and day out. Nice job by Garza.

Offensively, Joe Mather hit a homerun. It was the first homerun hit by a Cubs outfielder this season and just the 8th home run overall for the team. This is not a team that will hit many home runs. We talked about it this spring when we looked at the guy most likely to hit 30 home runs. I chose Bryan LaHair, but I wasn’t even confident he’d do it. It’s simply not a team that is going to beat you with the long ball, which means it’s even more imperative to go for curvy numbers when you can instead of playing for one run.

Tony Campana hit leadoff today and the more I see him, the more I like his bat in the lineup. He just makes thing happen with his speed. He forced a bad throw by Kyle Kendrick on a pickoff attempt and advanced to 2nd as a result. He tagged up from third on a shallow fly ball from Starlin Castro and scored despite a really nice throw from Hunter Pence, and he stole a base later in the game. Len and Bob talked about it during the game. The key to Campana’s success will be his ability to get on base. If he can do that, his speed can be a huge asset. I remember seeing him play in AA against the Mudcats and everyone in the pressbox was amazed by just how fast he got down the line each time up. I’d like to see Dale keep him in the leadoff spot to utilize his speed. I think him hitting ahead of David DeJesus would help DeJesus’s game a little more. He has more gap power than Campana and so you’d figure he could be a better run producer as a result of having someone like Campana ahead of him in the order.

Carlos Marmol came in to make the game eventful in the 9th and you have to wonder when the Cubs will look to move him. I just don’t see how you can count on him in any type of high leverage situation because of his volatility and yet of all the pitchers on the staff, Marmol averages the highest leverage index of any reliever entering the game for the Cubs. Why use the guy that has been least effective in the situations that are the most critical? Death to the save stat. Death to the closer.

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The Farm Report: April 28th – A Discussion on Brett Jackson

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

TRIPLE-A – Iowa 0, Nashville 3

At what point to we begin to get frustrated with the progression of Brett Jackson to the point where we a) demote him to AA or b) demote him in our top prospect list. At the beginning of the season, we ranked Jackson the # 1 prospect on our list. Since that time, he’s gone on to post rather underwhelming numbers for Iowa. He’s struck out in 31.4% of his at bats this season. That’s down slightly from his 34% last season in Iowa, but it’s not a drastic improvement. That stat alone is enough for me to continue to express concern in his development. He must be able to get fooled less. If you’re missing that much facing AAA guys, what are you going to do when you face guys who really know what they’re doing? It’s concerning to me. Now, all that to say that Jackson went 0-for-3 last night with two strikeouts, lowering his numbers to .233 / .330 / .419. Those numbers, if you factor out the batting average, aren’t as bad. I’d like to see the OPS above .800, but that would come with less strikeouts because the average would naturally come up by putting the ball in play more. 

Chris Rusin got the start for the offensively challenged Cubs and did everything in his power to help the team. He exited with a line of 6 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 4 K. He’s pitched very well so far this season in five starts, compiling a 2-2 record with an ERA of 2.63. Rodrigo Lopez made his first appearance out of the pen since being designated for assignment and clearing waivers on April 23. You have to wonder if he feels jerked around at all. He’s 36 years old so he doesn’t fit into the long term plans, but you feel back watching the guy just try to do whatever he can to hang on. He tossed a scoreless inning of relief in the 7th before turning in over to Casey Coleman in the 8th and 9th. This move confused me a little. I’ve put call in to Iowa for some info on if Coleman has been demoted from the rotation. That’s not a spot I’d want to be if I were him. With Ryan Dempster hurting, but due back and Randy Wells stinking up the joint, this is prime audition time and Coleman is missing out on that shot. He got hit for the only runs of the game and picked up the loss.

UPDATE: I spoke with the media department for the Cubs and they advised me accordingly regarding the strange series of pitchers we saw last night:

Casey’s status hasn’t changed.  He was scheduled to start Friday when we were rained out and everyone was already on an extra day’s rest because of an off-day on Wednesday, so they came up with a plan to try to get everyone some work and stay on some sort of schedule.  The plan going into the game was to get Rodrigo Lopez an inning and Casey Coleman two innings behind Rusin.  Lopez is going into the rotation and will start on Tuesday at Memphis.  Casey will come back next Wednesday and start and then back to Rusin on Thursday.  All three pitchers yesterday are in our rotation.  It was just an unusual case of an off-day and a rainout close together and trying to get everyone their work while disrupting the fewest schedules as possible.

DOUBLE-A – Tennessee 4, Jackson 6

Really not much to report on this game, especially since I went a little long on the Iowa game. Four Smokie hitters put up two hits but no one on this team has really wowed me this season. Outfielder, Michael Burgess, was one of the four with a pair of hits with his coming from a double and his 3rd home run of the season. Dallas Beeler, after beginning the season with three straight nice starts has been roughed up over the last two outings. He finished the night taking the loss after tossing 5 IP, 4 ER, 8 H, 1 K.

HIGH-A – Daytona 7, Lakeland 2

Matt Loosen pitched 2.2 innings in a rehab appearance, allowing one run on two hits with two walks and three strikeouts. Loosen’s fastball was consistently clocked in the low-to-mid 90s with his curveball on-point. He didn’t pick up the win due to inning requirements, but the Daytona offense supported him nicely with four runs in the bottom of the 1st inning. That would be enough offense to defeat Lakeland. At the plate, Matt Szczur picked up a double and stole his 12th base of the season.

LOW-A – Peoria 5, Fort Wayne 6

The Peoria Chiefs let leads of 3-0 and 5-2 slip away Saturday night in a 6-5 loss to the Fort Wayne TinCaps in game one of a three game series. Taiwan Easterling was the player of the game. He singled twice, stole two bases, scored a run and drove in a run. He finished 2-for-4 and saved a run with a diving catch in center field. Not a bad night for the youngster. Paul Hoilman picked up a double and extended his hitting streak to 13 games while Wes Darvill picked up a single to extend his to 12. Just to remind you that hitting streaks are somewhat meaningless, Hoilman and Darvill are hitting .277 & .276 respectively.

TRANSACTIONS

Anytime the big club makes a move it sets in motion a chain reaction of promotions. With the Wellington Castillo promotion to the Majors to fill in for the injured Steve Clevenger we saw that chain reaction started. Juan Apodaca joins the I-Cubs from double-A Tennessee. Apodaca batted .207 (6-for-29) with three doubles and one RBI in 11 games with the Smokies this season.  He also drew seven walks while striking out five times.  Behind the plate, he was 3-for-14 (.214) in throwing out opposing base runners.  The Cubs signed Apodaca as a minor league free agent in January.  Last season, he hit .184 (16-for-87) in 30 games with double-A Akron in the Cleveland Indians organization.  He was on the disabled list from June 30-August 24 with a broken toe on his left foot.  Apodaca originally signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2003 as a first basemen and converted to catcher in 2004.  He was selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the Rule 5 Draft in 2007 and then traded to the Boston Red Sox.  This is his 10th season in minor league baseball.  He came into this season with a career batting average of .247 with 37 home runs and 207 RBI.  His only other triple-A experience was 14 games with Pawtucket in 2010.  Apodaca is 25 years old and hails from Caracas, VZ

With Apodaco being promoted to AAA, INF Matt Cerda has been activated from the disabled list. Cerda, 21, began the 2012 campaign with the Smokies before heading to the DL on April 17.  In six games with Tennessee, he is batting .211 (4-for-19) with two doubles, one triple and two RBIs.  The Oceanside, Calif. native was selected in the fourth round of the 2008 MLB First-Year Player Draft.

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Game 21: It’s good to be back!

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

Cubs 2 @ Phillies 5

Box Score / Highlights / Condensed Game

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to contribute to the VFTB community, and all I can say is: it’s good to be back! School is over for the year and baseball season in high gear. Couldn’t be happier!

The only thing that could make it better would be a Cubs win; however, that didn’t happen. I have a feeling that might be a common occurrence this year…

However, I didn’t get to watch the whole game. My little brother had his Junior Prom and I had to go to the grand march. So, I listened to the rest of the game. It was painful to hear Pat try to say “Papelbon” (it was more like “pop-le-bahn”).

Before the game even started, Steve Clevenger was placed on the DL with an oblique strain. Too bad, considering up until now he’s batting .500 with 5 doubles. Soto was experiencing some back tightness, and Dale Sveum mentioned having Barney catch if Soto had to be taken out. Thankfully, that crisis was averted and Wellington Castillo was called up from Peoria and made the start.

Batting: LaHair was looking good in the first with an RBI double. But then he proceeded to strike out in his next three plate appearances. He and Castro make a good 1-2 punch, but they’re the only punches we’re throwing. Nearly everybody had a hit. With 2 outs in the bottom of the ninth, Reed Johnson was up and decided to bunt against Papelbon. He bunted. Against Papelbon. That was probably not the wisest decision to make in the bottom of the ninth with 2 outs. I don’t know if I’d rather watch him try to bunt or strike out looking with the bases loaded in that situation. Either way, Reed has made some less-than-spectacular decisions at the plate in the ninth inning.

Pitching: Randy Wells was kind of a disaster. He hit  Blanton the first time he faced him. Then with 2 outs and 2 on in the fourth, he walked him to load the bases, allowing Jimmy Rollins to have a 2 RBI double. Wells pitched 3 2/3, allowed the pitcher to reach base twice without even having to lift the bat off his shoulder. Bowden gave up a bomb to Carlos Ruiz in the 6th to seal their fate.

All in all, kind of a disappointing game to watch/listen to.

Random Nugget: Bryce Harper, the 19 year old left fielder for the Nationals, got the start tonight. He went 1-for-3 with a sac fly and a double. There wasn’t too much to criticize. The kid does need a haircut, though.

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